Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún (Bolivia) tr. Sophie Hughes

AffectionsSelected in 2010 as one of The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists by Granta, Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbún’s Affections is his second novel and will be published in ten languages. It was the winner of an English PEN Award 2016.

The novel is less a story and more a set of loosely connected vignettes from the lives and perspectives of the three daughters of  Aurelia and Hans Ertl, a family who fled post-war Germany in the wake of their father’s position as a cameraman, (he had worked on several Nazi propaganda films), to live in exile in Bolivia.

One of his daughters Monika Ertl became involved with the survivors of Che Guevara’s guerrilla movement and was allegedly involved in the assassination of the Bolivian consul in Hamburg, a man said to have ordered the hands of Guevara be cut off and sent to La Paz.

Hasbún’s novel takes these threads and weaves a disparate narrative, that highlights different moments in the lives of all members of this family, whose life trajectory was dramatically altered by their geographic displacement.

No sooner have they arrived, than Hans, a climber, explorer, photographer, seeker of adventure announces he is quitting climbing and organising an expedition to find a lost Inca city named Paititi buried somewhere deep in the Amazon forest. Two of his daughters come with him, and for his eldest Monika, it becomes a first step towards a life of social activism, which will result in her involvement in revolutionary guerilla warfare.

With a father seeking adventure and a mother prone to melancholy, the girls find themselves in a place they can never truly call home, where they will always be viewed as outsiders and find it difficult to find solace even among their ex-pat community, which in a cruel twist of fate, view them similarly to the way they were regarded in post-war Germany, only now it seems futile to escape their fate.

“All that grind to end up back where I started,” he complained to me one day down the phone. He said he’d experienced something similar after the war, that they’d already made him feel like an outcast once before, that during that period they closed one door after another to him, but that this time he wouldn’t move an inch.

Also included in the narrative are what appear to be the responses to an interview or interrogation of one of Monika’s lovers Reinhard, who was her brother-in-law, probably in a follow-up to the assassination of the Bolivian consul.

//yes, she’s the only one who matters now, the misunderstood child, the chaotic, rebellious teenager, the woman who went on to lose all perspective and no longer knew where to stop and ended up hurting herself and others. //Yes, if you pressed me I would say this is the definition of her that sticks: the woman who went on to cause so much hurt.

Bolivian Author, Rodrigo Hasbún

Bolivian Author, Rodrigo Hasbún

It is a fragmentary novel that depicts a family set adrift, unable to remain united nor to be held together by their adopted community, the daughters seek to carve out a life of their own, struggling in isolation.

The piecemeal structure of the novel with its alternating narrators is symbolic of that disconnect and isolation, exile may have heralded adventure and discovery, however the expedition to discover a lost city, became the catalyst to the disintegration of all that once kept them together.

It’s not true that memory is a safe place. In there too, things get distorted and lost. In there, too, we end up turning away from the people we love the most.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Pushkin Press for a copy of this haunting novella.

Further Reading

The City and the Writer: In Cochabamba with Rodrigo Hasbún – an interview by Nathalie Handal.

Buy a copy of Affections via Book Depository (Affiliate Link)

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

All Our NamesFinding a book like this on the English language shelves of our local French library, is one of life’s small pleasures in a world that offers few escapes these days from tragic reality.

A book like this, by an author named Dinaw Mengestu, winner of the Guardian First Book Prize for his debut novel Children of the Revolution, chosen as one of the 20 best writers under 40 by The New Yorker in 2010, born in Ethiopia and raised in the suburbs of Chicago – well I cast all other reading plans aside and jumped right in, relishing the feel of the hardback, admiring the simplicity of such a striking cover and anticipating a joyous, literary ride.

The title All Our Names, reminded me immediately of Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo’s  We Need New Names, hers a reference to the move to America, while Mengestu delves further back and makes us realise just how deep and far-reaching the naming ritual is.

“On the bus ride to the capital, I gave up all the names my parents had given me. I was almost twenty-five, but by any measure, much younger. …I tried to think of myself as a revolutionary in the making, though I had come to the capital with other ambitions.”

Library Entrance

The Library Where This Book Lives

Ill-prepared for the world that awaited him, he assumed the few Victorian novels he had read would prepare him for studying literature, having been inspired by reading of a conference of a group of African writers and scholars in a newspaper that had belatedly arrived in his village.

“No one I met believed I was a revolutionary, and I didn’t have the heart to claim I wanted to be a writer.”

Right from the opening pages, when he meets the young man who tells him his name ‘for now is Isaac’, we are made aware of the significance and dispensability of names.

“Isaac” was the name his parents had given him and, until it was necessary for us to flee the capital, the only name he wanted. His parents had died, in the last round of fighting that came just before independence. “Isaac” was their legacy to him, and when his revolutionary dreams came to an end, and he had to choose between leaving and staying, that name became his last and most precious gift to me.

UgandaThe story is narrated in alternate chapters, one entitled Isaac, the other Helen. Isaac takes place during a short period in the life of the male protagonist after he has left the family village somewhere in Ethiopia, planning never to return, arriving in Kampala, a city in Uganda where he hopes to study at the university.

It is there he meets the young man named Isaac, recognising in him a similar ambition and humble origins, though in his presence he is also aware of an undercurrent of fear and trepidation, not yet realising, but intuiting the dangerous depths Isaac is capable of descending  into in order to achieve that ambition.

The Helen chapters take place in a small midwest town in the US, Helen is the social worker assigned to him when he arrives from Africa; she installs him in accommodation and helps him to adjust to the new life as a foreign exchange student.

The relationship becomes complicated when boundaries are breached, as the two offer each other something of an escape from their very different pasts.

It is a simple story possessing its own undercurrent that pulls the twin narratives along, the emotional pull in Helen’s story, her struggle to navigate the space between her feelings for him and society’s expectations and in the Isaac chapters, a mounting tension as student protests and harmless revolutionary activities turn sinister and violence becomes the shortest and most effective negotiating tool to obtaining power.

Set in the 1970’s during the Ugandan post-colonial revolt, this novel was hard to put down and offered a unique insight into one example of the kind of experience that might have occurred to any refugee fleeing a violent uprising. Equally, it aptly depicts the discomfort of even the most liberal, unjudging character, raised in a quiet, conservative town, whose wavers between ignoring and following her instinct to abandon all she knows in order to follow her heart.

“I wonder whether, if before meeting Isaac I had tried to challenge the easy, small-time bigotry that was so common to our daily lives that i noticed it only in it extremes. I might have felt a little less shame that evening. It’s possible that I might have been able to release some of it slowly over the years, like one of those pressure valves that let out enough steam on a constant basis to keep the pipes from bursting. It’s also equally possible that such relief is impossible, that, regardless of what we do, we are tied to all the prejudices in our country and the crimes that come with them.”

The Burgess BoysIt reminded me a little of Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys (read and reviewed in 2013), which I was a little disappointed by, this is the kind of book I was expecting, but understandably, she wrote it from the perspective of the Burgess boys, whereas Dinaw Mengestu gives us both perspectives and the story is all the more powerful for it.

Mengestu writes in an engaging and flawless style, his storytelling and insights are enough to convince me I will definitely be reading more of his work soon.

 

In the Shadow of the Banyan

Early morning in Hanoi, Vietnam

The countries, culture and people of Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and the surrounding area interest me. Vietnam was the first country I travelled solo in and while I was there, in addition to the cultural immersion, I also enjoyed reading the works of two local authors, which I purchased from a street vendor, Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War and Duong Thu Huong’s Paradise of the Blind, both of which are excellent.

We learn a little how they live, what they eat and how a soldier deals with the aftermath of war. These occasional books translated into English provide an important insight into real experiences and a way of thinking that cannot be portrayed by any other than those who were raised there. Their experiences often cause us to question our own perspective, our knowledge, and beseech us to see things from another point of view. It is a joy therefore to come across a publisher of who said:

When I came to S&S, I told everyone here I wanted to publish books that deepen the cultural conversation and take readers to places they couldn’t otherwise go. – Jonathan Karp, Simon & Schuster

This is certainly the case with Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, narrated from the perspective of 7-year-old Raami, a girl whose experiences reflect the author’s own, though she has chosen to fictionalise her story.

 It isn’t so much the story of the Khmer Rouge experience, of genocide, or even of loss and tragedy. What I wanted to articulate is something more universal, more indicative, I believe, of the human experience our struggle to hang onto life, our desire to live, even in the most awful circumstances. – Vaddey Ratner

Lest we forget, Hanoi, Vietnam

The daughter of royalty, although a failed, corrupt democracy ruled, she and her family were evicted by the revolutionary Khmer Rouge, a marginal guerrilla group – whose leaders were from the same intellectual class as Ratner’s well-educated father, however who held radical ideals to transform the social fabric by destroying traditional family, social and wealth connections and creating an experimental collective.

Their revolution took the form of putting the population into work camps in living conditions worse than peasants. Whether driven by fear, paranoia or disillusionment, they ruthlessly continued to seek out and judge people as the enemy, a definition that moved and changed like the current in the Mekong itself until through murder, disease or starvation scholars estimate that as many as a third of the population (1-2 million) died. The regime was finally overthrown by the Vietnamese military in January 1979.

Ratner tells the story of Raami, physically challenged from a polio defect which shortened one of her legs, her experience during the period of exile with her parents and sister, how she survived the extreme living and working conditions and what it taught her along the way. She remembers the stories and poems that her father shared with her and they continue to be a source of strength for her throughout her life.

“Do you know why I told you stories Raami?” he asked. I shook my head. I knew nothing, understood nothing.

“When I thought you couldn’t walk, I wanted to make sure you could fly.” His voice was calm, soothing, as if it were just another evening, another conversation.

“I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything – your name, your title, the limits of your body, this world’s suffering.”

It is a humbling story and frightening to perceive, yet dealt with by Ratner in a way that allows us to acknowledge and attempt to understand something of the seemingly never-ending cycle of oppression, idealism, revolution and the dangers inherent when revolutionary intent is hijacked by power, destroyed by paranoia and becomes tyrannical, while preserving the few special moments that continue to pass between people despite the danger posed by their selfless acts.

Terrible as it is and damaged as they are, it is those who survive and who are still able to maintain some belief in the human spirit and humanity that bring one of the few gifts that such terror evokes. It is a price no person would ever wish to pay.

For all the loss and tragedy I have known, my life has taught me that the human spirit, like the lifted hands of the blind, will rise above chaos and destruction, as wings in flight.

The author has succeeded in taking this sad chapter in her country’s history and showing us some of its beauty and culture, sharing memories and thoughts that can never be erased and putting them into a new form, this literary work, which we are privileged for it to be shared in English.

In a sense it leaves us puzzled and perplexed, just as witnessed in Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, yet another tyrannical regime that loses its way to the detriment of its people. The stories can be shared and passed on, but they also represent a kind of grief for a way of life now lost to future generations.

Note: This was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Passionate & Dedicated – Aung San Suu Kyi ‘The Lady’

It seems appropriate in the year that three women won the Nobel Peace prize, that we remember ‘The Lady’, Aung San Suu Kyi, who won this prize twenty years ago in 1991, nominated by the admired leader and humanitarian, former Czech president Václav Havel, who died this month.

It is debatable whether most know Aung San Suu Kyi for her steadfast dedication in promoting the ideals of democracy and metta (a Buddhist term meaning loving kindness) to the people of Burma, or for the longevity of her term as a prisoner of conscience, held under house arrest for 15 of the 21 years from 1989 until her release in November 2010.

Winning the Noble peace prize increased her prominence and brought her cause and the plight of suffering Burmese and hill tribe people to the attention of the international community.  Just this year she was visited with open arms by Hilary Clinton, not long after announcing she would run for election in upcoming byelections.

I picked up Justin Wintle’s book ‘Perfect Hostage’ Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma and the Generals, believing it a biography, mislead perhaps by the striking portrait which graces the cover and select testimonials describing it as so. In fact, I would call it a historic treatise of Burma and while of significant interest in itself, I did find it frustrating that it took close to 200 pages to encounter Aung San Suu Kyi within its covers. Though there is depth in the historical account, I found the reverse to be true in terms of the author’s evocation of Aung San Suu Kyi, in fact I found many of his comments patronising and uncomfortable:

Had SLORC not placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, it is improbable that she would have been given the Nobel Prize…‘ and on a tribute she wrote about her father ‘ This, the notion of St Aung San, may have been over-egging the cake’ and ‘When I saw that Aung San Suu Kyi had got a third class degree I let out an involuntary chuckle.

I am certain that the author interviewed many people, that is clear, but as to coming to some understanding and appreciation of Aung San Suu Kyi and her perspective or her personality, the text remains curiously detached.  Dare I say, I detected a hint of what could almost be compared to a colonial attitude, as referred to in George Orwell’s novel ‘Burmese Days’ (himself born in India with unacknowledged Burmese relatives in the family). That would be going too far I am sure, but it frustrated me enormously and made me yearn to read something actually written by Aung San Suu Kyi herself, something this book is remarkably short on.

However, letting go of the expectation of an exquisite biography and seen as the historical treatise that it is, I find a thorough and detailed account of a remarkable country and ethnic melting pot of people who have long been subject to tyrannical rule. Sitting between India in the west and China in the east with borders that touch so many countries, Tibet, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh, it is not surprising that it comprises so many ethnic groupings and hill tribes and has encountered so much conflict.  It has a unique history of rising to great prominence and descending into chaos, as each successive victor sought to impose their will.

It provides an interesting introduction to Aung San Suu Kyi’s father Aung San, his haphazard entrance into politics and the fraught relationship with Japan, set up to assist in the removal of the British, only to find they had replaced one empire seeking power with another.

‘I went to Japan to save my people who were struggling like bullocks under the British. But now we are treated like dogs. We are far from our hope of reaching the human stage, and even to get back to the bullock stage we need to struggle more.’ Aung San, at Maymyo, June 1942

With independence secured, the future looked positive in many respects. Democratic elections in April 1947 elevated Aung San to leadership, until he was betrayed and assassinated by one of his fellow countrymen. The country struggled to take advantage of its newfound independence and while the coup in 1962 was seen by many at the time as a hopeful resolution, it signalled the beginning of torturous dictatorships that have cost many lives, exiled others and kept Burma’s icon for free, democratic choice under arrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi was a reluctant hero; married with two children to the Oxford academic Michael Aris, a leading Western authority on Bhutanese, Tibetan and Himalayan culture, she returned to Burma to nurse her mother after a stroke and found herself sharing the hospital ward with many student victims of the atrocities occurring under the regime.  Astounded, she absorbed the horror of their stories and they listened to her reflections urging her to become actively involved in the struggle.

Just as Buddha gave himself up for the betterment of sentient beings, so Aung San Suu Kyi by offering herself to the people of Burma, was put in such circumstances she had little choice but to leave her family behind, a test the regime continued to dangle in front of her, in their hope she would leave and the people forget her. Her persistence in staying kept the candle of hope burning for millions and perhaps we may now see the fruit of that hope manifesting in their upcoming elections.

Slaves and Siblings, Sorcery and Sadness, Strength and Salvation – Isabelle Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea

Isabel Allende.

I well remember being introduced to her debut novel ‘The House of the Spirits’ in my early twenties by a good friend and discovering this wonderful story teller. We became immersed in the lives of members of a Latin American family, following it during a time of political upheaval and personal transformation and though it was far from our own reality, it was pure joy to escape into.

Whenever I came across a new book I read it, including two of her wonderful young adult books ‘City of the Beasts’ and ‘The Kingdom of the Dragon’ and who could forget the heart-breaking but beautiful ‘Paula’. I haven’t read all her books, but I will continue to read those that cross my bookish path, just as ‘Island Beneath the Sea’ did recently, spotted on my book buddy’s shelf while feeding her son’s cat Oscar.

In this gripping novel, Allende takes us on a troubling but engaging journey to the sugar cane plantations of what was the French colony Sainte-Domingue, in one of its most historic and transformational eras during the late 1700’s and ends in New Orleans as Napolean trades terrains as if they are commodities with the Americans.

Toulouse Valmorain arrives in the colony from France where the dauphin King has just married Marie-Antoinette and few anticipate the changes to come with revolution in France or the effect that will have on this prosperous Caribbean island where slaves labour on crops that produce a third of the wealth of France and whose usefulness once they set foot on the island averages eighteen months; the fortunate dubbed the Maroons fleeing to the hills, the less fortunate en route to that place they believe all souls go, the island beneath the sea.

Knowing little of changing French laws that might change their status in the colony, many of the slaves find respite through voodoo and belief in men who escaped like the legend Macandal ‘The Black Messiah’. The Maroons will make history as they lead a slave revolt eventually resulting in the first black republic of Haiti.

Valmorain never expected to visit the family plantations but the premature death of his father and the necessity of supporting remaining family in France drive him to the colony where he must take over the family interests. Through him we meet high profile cocotte Violette Boisier, a free woman of mixed African heritage, the teenage slave Zarité, maid to Eugenia the troubled Spanish wife and her brother Sancho, Valmorain’s business partner. The story follows these characters as their fates intertwine and their lives are affected by society’s strictures and historical events.

The characters of Zarité and Violette jump off the page in a way that almost makes me wonder whether the author had her ‘favourite’ characters, we see them in situations and feel their struggles whereas I didn’t get quite the same feeling with the character of Eugenia, I found myself wondering how it really was for her as the drumbeats got inside her head and slowly drove her to madness. She wasn’t a strong character and although she suffered, we learn of it rather than experience it.

I realised towards the end that much of the novel is narrated, which also made me wonder how much longer it could have been if more of the narrative had been portrayed through the events themselves and dialogue, the characters are certainly engaging enough but at 457 pages, it is lengthy already. After being totally engaged with Josephine Bonaparte’s story beginning in another Caribbean plantation in Martinique, I could easily have been tempted by a sequel.

Allende narrates great stories and brings the reader to unforgettable settings during fascinating historic periods; she places interesting characters in this context, constructed with great clarity and insight and history comes alive as if it is the present and the reader is witness to it. For me ‘Island beneath the Sea’ was a real page turner and I was sad to finish it.

What Allende could never have anticipated while writing this book, was the major earthquake in 2010 that would disrupt this country, now known as Haiti, however it is a timely reminder of the previous chapters in the history of this trailblazing republic.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

‘Lacuna.’

I love it when a book introduces a new word and uses it sufficiently that you know it’s not fleeting knowledge, something you know for a day and have difficulty recalling a week later.  When that new word is the title of the book, there’s a pretty good chance you will remember it.

Deep water soloA ‘lucuna’ is a space or a void, a deep underwater cave, something hidden, unknown; already we see its metaphorical potential and Barbara Kingsolver puts it to good use in this excellent novel which intertwines the fictional story of 12 year old Shepherd, through historical events of Mexico and the US in the 1930’s and 40’s, including time spent in the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and their controversial houseguest Leon Trotsky.

A fan of the film ‘Frida’ beautifully depicted by , I’d met these characters on screen and found them good company in Kingsolver’s story of Shepherd whose socially aspiring Mexican mother ditches her emotionally cool civil servant husband to return to “Isla Pixol” an island off the coast of Mexico.

Shepherd’s skills learned in the kitchen of his island home lead him to mixing plaster for Diego Rivera’s murals “It’s like making dough for pan dulce” where he joins the household as cook and typist for Rivera, his artist wife, Frida Kahlo, and later for their guest, the exiled Communist leader Trotsky.

In this incendiary, revolutionary household, Shepherd listens and observes as egos roar and quake. Baking all day, he records the dramas of this entourage by night, along with his first novel, an epic of the Aztec empire.  In 1940, when Trotsky is assassinated, Shepherd leaves Mexico, spooked by newspaper articles denouncing his employers and friends.

The story unfolds through Shepherd’s diaries and letters as well as actual newspaper cuttings that reflect the selectively reported half-truths and lies used to justify hatred towards “them”: first the fascists, then the Reds.  And it seems anyone can become one of “them.”

Media madness and political upheaval follow,  then Violet arrives in Shepherd’s life to help record his stories.  She chances across a new gap – a long-vanished diary, Shepherd’s excuse for not finishing a memoir.

The Lacuna is multi layered, beautifully written and for me a joy to read.  Though some have struggled to get into it, I recommend you persevere and partake in this extraordinary journey through wonderfully depicted characters, and the conscious landscapes of Kingsolver’s world.

Josephine Bonaparte’s Miraculous Life & Words from a Pioneer Woman

Joesphine Bonaparte

Historical fiction doesn’t usually sit on my reading pile, but ‘word of mouth’ great books certainly do and it is due to the latter that I found myself recently devouring not just one but two historical fiction trilogies.

‘These is My Words’ is inspired by author Nancy Turner’s family memoirs of her great grandmother Sarah Prine, an astonishing, wilful and unforgettable pioneering woman who seeks a living in the harsh, untamed lands of the Arizona Territory circa late 1800’s.  She encounters love too briefly and loss too often, wrestles against nature’s wrath and must deal with unpredictable neighbours.  From the oral tales of her great-grandmother Turner has created three volumes which recount the trials and triumphs of Sarah Prine’s memorable life, reminding us of the oft forgotten dreams, challenges and incredible tales of survival of those who came before us.

So ‘Sarah Prine’ is finished but the experience of one courageous woman left a taste for more, so after reading a chance review we (my book buddy and I) decide on the Josephine B trilogy.  Here was a chance to read about a significant period in French history through the eyes of a woman I knew little about – and what an exceptional woman and colourful life to discover.

From humble island roots growing up on a plantation in Martinique, more familiar with village superstition than the courts and noble families of Paris; it is only the forbidden predictions of a Voodoo witchdoctor that hint at the majestic life that awaits Rose Tacher (Josephine Bonaparte).

Written as a collection of journal entries, Sandra Gulland has created a series that sweeps you through the late 1700’s and early 1800’s of Republican and Monarchist France as opinion and favourability flip flop between the two, and it appears as though no one can make up their mind whether indeed it will be a Republic, an Empire or a combination of both.

Each book is as good as, if not better than its precedent and the astonishing amount of research that went into the series and the compassion with which Gulland handles her characters leaves them well etched in your mind.

These is My Words, Sarah’s Quilt, A Star Garden by Nancy E Turner

The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B, Tales of Passion- Tales of Woe, The Last Great Dance on Earth by Sandra Gulland